A show of support for Delavan teacher

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Margaret Plevak | March 12, 2014

DELAVAN--Two weeks ago on the day third-grade teacher Michele Raykovich was scheduled for breast cancer surgery, the students at St. Andrew's Parish Elementary School in Delavan where she teaches came together to form a living awareness ribbon in the school gym.

Pink dominated the winding line: knit caps and headbands, jackets and leggings—some boys even sported pink t-shirts and polo shirts—down to dabs of pink face paint. The photo went out on St. Andrew School's Facebook page, with the caption, “For you, Mrs. Raykovich.”

Deb Amici, an eighth-grade teacher at the school who got the idea for the ribbon, said Raykovich saw the line before she went to the hospital later that morning and it brought tears to her eyes. “That carried her,” Amici said. “You feel loved and valued (by) that kind of human touch.”

Amici, Raykovich, and Nikki Marsicano, an arts teacher at the school, have developed a friendship over the years at St. Andrew. Amici has been teaching there since 1987. Raykovich came in 1992, and Marsicano in 1990.

Without family members and adult children living nearby, the three women found good company in each other. They got together for lunch and went to the movies. But they also forged ties that run deeper.

“We've got to become really close in the years we've been here, just sharing the ups and downs on the journey life can take you on,” Amici said. “I think as a woman, as you get older, friends become really important. They understand you, they get you. The things in life that you maybe can't talk to somebody else about--your fears and concerns--you can talk about to your best friends.”

They saw each other through the loss of parents and even a spouse.

After a 15-year battle with lymphoma that began when he was diagnosed in his early 40s, Amici's husband, Craig, died three years ago.

Amici remembered Raykovich's steady hand through an emotional time.

“She pretty much saved my life,” Amici said. “She drove me to the hospital in Madison when I couldn't drive. I probably lived at her house the first year after my husband died. On weekends, I was afraid to be alone. Michele made sure I ate. She took me if I needed to go to my support groups. (She was one of) those people in your life that you don't know what you'd do without them. You're not blood-related, but you're family.”

Amici and Marsicano helped Raykovich deal with a breast cancer diagnosis and surgery six years ago. And they were there this time.

Along with Raykovich's husband, Marsicano and Amici were at the hospital for Raykovich's surgery last month.

“It was important to both of us and to Michele,” Amici said.

Amici said up to her surgery, Raykovich prepared for the substitute who'll be teaching her class while she's recuperating. She wrote notes about all her students for the sub, worked ahead on lesson plans, and sent a letter home to parents, letting them know what was going on.

“She's just one of the most courageous people I've ever met. She always looked at life as the glass being half full,” Amici said. “She loves teaching. She is an inspiration for me as a role model. She's never too busy for anyone, whether it's a child or a friend. She is greatly loved by everybody in the St. Andrew's community.”

Andy Thone's five children have all had Raykovich as a teacher, and each considered her their favorite.

“She's like a second mother to the children in her classroom,” said Thone, who volunteers at the school. “She's very nurturing and warm, and she's doing exactly what she was meant to do.”

Avery Hembrook, an 18-year-old senior at Delavan-Darien High School, was a third-grader in Raykovich's classroom. Hembrook remembers an engaging teacher who had her students board a pretend plane to Australia and Japan when they studied those countries.

“When we were in Japan, she even came in with a kimono on,” Hembrook wrote in an email. “She not only teaches the material, but actually gets you involved.”

Hembrook asked Raykovich to be her confirmation sponsor. And when she attends the University of La Crosse this fall, Hembrook will be majoring in early childhood education—thanks to the inspiration of her third-grade teacher.

“She always has a smile on her face and is the strongest person I know,” Hembrook said. “She inspires me to get through even the hardest days.”

Raykovich is known as the "Snicker Bar Queen” for her love of her favorite candy bar, but also because she often passes them out.

“Michele is spunky and caring, she goes well beyond what's expected of her,” said art teacher Marsicano. “You have to be nurturing to be a teacher and she's really that. She lives it.”

St. Andrew's faculty members brought Raykovich a care package tucked into a handbag made by Vera Bradley, her favorite designer. Parents dropped off food at her house, planned meals and Thone brought her a basket that included gift cards, flowers and a pillow. 

“All of our 150 students are supporting Mrs. Raykovich,” said John Chovanec, principal of St. Andrew's School.

Students made dozens of cards and participated in a prayer chain.

Amici isn't surprised by the outpouring of compassion from a small school community.

Students regularly participate in service projects, from food collection drives for the local food pantry to raising $1,300 in a little over a month for “Pennies for Patients,” a project that supports leukemia and lymphoma research.

“When my husband died the church was full and it was students who came back from high school. The altar was filled with flowers. The outpouring of support and love is kind of what gets you though the crappy times you have in life," Amici said. "St. Andrew's is like a family. It's not perfect, but in times like this, people really dig in and reach out to others.”

Amici and Marsicano share updates with kids at school, and Amici said Raykovich will be back teaching.

But meanwhile, Raykovich is feeling the love from her school community.

In last week's school newsletter, she wrote, “I have been very touched by your love and prayers and one thing I know for sure is that you have all been angels guiding me through these last several weeks. I am so fortunate to be a member of this very loving and Christian community.”

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